How the “Anti-Boycott” Bill threatens climate action

Find out how a new law would hinder environmental campaigning and the ability of public bodies to make climate-conscious and ethical investment decisions.
  Published:  23 Jan 2024    |      Last updated:  02 May 2024    |      5 minute read

What’s the Anti-Boycott Bill?

For decades, the environmental and human rights movements have relied on boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as key campaigning tactics. For example, a student-led, global effort to convince universities, cities and countries to divest from companies doing business in South Africa was a key part of the struggle to end apartheid in the 1980s and 90s. 

Boycott means refusing to buy products or services from an organisation, country or person, for example a company producing unethical palm oil. Divestment means moving money out of unethical investments by getting rid of stocks, shares, bonds or funds, for example pensions with investments in the fossil fuel industry. Sanction means imposing restrictions and penalties on a country, for example the EU imposed various sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

But these crucial tactics are now under threat in the UK. The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, otherwise known as the “Anti-Boycott” Bill, is currently making its way through parliament. It stops public bodies from making decisions on investments or procurement that are “influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”. That means if it comes into law, it could restrict public bodies like councils in their use of BDS and make campaigning for climate action even harder.

Why are boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns important?

BDS campaigns are effective ways to secure crucial action from those in power. They can convince public bodies to take local decisions that have global impact. 

Divestment is a particularly important tactic for the environmental movement. Divestment directly defunds coal, oil and gas companies. Every time people convince well-respected institutions to divest, the reputation and power of the fossil fuel industry takes a massive hit, which in turn drives climate action at the local and national level. Find out more about why we need to divest from fossil fuels.

As a campaigning tactic, divestment has a long and successful history in bringing about change. For example, during the Irish parliament’s 2018 vote to divest from fossil fuel companies, the collective market value of the biggest US oil, gas and oil companies dropped by $14 billion (3.1%). 

An old photograph of students clapping and holding banners that read "Divest now, free South Africa" and "Boycott"
Harvard anti-apartheid demonstration in 1979
Credit: Barbara Alper via Getty Images

Globally, more than 1,500 institutions, with a total value of over $40.5 trillion, have made a commitment to divest from fossil fuels. As a member of UK Divest, Friends of the Earth has played its own part in divestment efforts, securing commitments and action from numerous councils to divest their pension funds. The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Senedd have committed to their pension funds being divested from fossil fuels, as have over 100 universities.

While imposing sanctions largely falls within the remit of states, public bodies can also make effective use of boycotts. For example, over 100 US and UK universities boycotted Fruit of the Loom after it closed a Honduran factory when workers unionised, forcing the company to reopen the factory and pay workers $2.5 million in compensation.

How’s Friends of the Earth campaigning against the bill?

We’ve provided MPs with a written briefing on the harmful implications of the bill, urging them to vote against it. We also briefed MPs on amendments to the bill tabled by Caroline Lucas MP, calling for their support. Caroline Lucas quoted from our briefing during a House of Commons debate on the bill, as did Chris Stephens MP at the bill's third reading. 

We’ve also given evidence at the relevant Public Bill Committee, established to scrutinise the bill on behalf of parliament. We put forward our concerns regarding the bill’s weak reference to “environmental misconduct,” which wouldn’t exclude a significant proportion of environmental destruction, as well as its implications for fossil fuel divestment. 


We've worked with Baroness Jenny Jones on 2 amendments addressing our concerns around "environmental misconduct" for the House of Lords to consider. These were supported by Lord Ray Collins, the Labour Chief Whip and leader of the opposition, who also highlighted the environmental destruction caused by legal deforestation for soy in Brazil or palm oil in Indonesia in a House of Lords debate.

How will the bill impact environmental campaigning?

While the bill won’t make it illegal for individuals or groups to campaign on BDS issues, it’s likely to provide a significant block to their success, as the bill aims to prevent decisions being made that amount to “moral or political disapproval” of foreign states, including where public bodies are persuaded by campaigners. 

Fossil fuel divestment could be especially impacted by the bill. Some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies (such as Saudi Aramco, Petrobras and Equinor) are majority owned or controlled by foreign states (such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Norway). Divesting from these could be interpreted as disapproval of the conduct of the relevant state. Oil and gas firms could also be protected from boycotts because their activities overseas are approved by the countries they’re operating in.

This bill is likely to cause a “chilling effect” among risk-averse public bodies such as councillors and university management teams. Institutions deemed in breach of the legislation could be fined, and there’s a gagging clause banning them from even stating that they intend to make decisions conflicting with the legislation, or that they would if they were allowed.

A group of people performing a stunt outside a town hall, including a large oil monster and drumming
Matlock campaigners lobby Derbyshire County Council to divest with their oil monster stunt
Credit: Christine Gregory

This will make it even harder to convince public bodies to boycott and divest, whether from fossil fuels or from any country, sector or company causing environmental harm or abusing human rights. It also threatens freedom of speech and freedom to campaign, as public bodies may become wary of being seen to be influenced by campaigners.

The bill does contain an exemption where decisions concern environmental misconduct, but this is weakly defined as conduct that’s illegal in the UK or any other country and causes significant harm to the environment. However, much environmental destruction, for example fossil fuel extraction or deforestation for soy or palm oil, either takes place completely legally, or in ways that make it impossible to distinguish legal and illegal activity.

Why’s Friends of the Earth opposing the bill?

We’re one of nearly 70 organisations, including Liberty, War on Want, UNISON and the Quakers, opposed to this legislation. It should be the responsibility of our public bodies to consider the environmental, moral and ethical implications of how they spend money, particularly where they’re elected or funded by the public. But this new bill will make it significantly harder for them to use BDS. Instead of protecting these rights, the UK government is defending the fossil fuel industry and other polluters from effective campaigning tactics.

Alongside environmental destruction, the bill would harm efforts to address human rights abuses around the world such as in China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. People across the Global South are some of the worst impacted by exploitative fossil fuel, agriculture, mining and logging companies, as well as unethical government and business activities. 

While the bill would allow the Secretary of State to exempt countries, meaning they could then be subject to BDS, this would be based on the minister’s own personal discretion rather than the views of public bodies or the general public. This sets a worrying precedent given Britain’s historical role in supporting atrocities such as apartheid in South Africa or General Pinochet’s regime in Chile. The rights of public institutions to invest or divest on ethical grounds must be protected.

Friends of the Earth opposes antisemitism

The government states that the aim of the bill is stop local governments from having their own “foreign policy”. It’s sought to link the movement supporting BDS against Israel to antisemitism.

Friends of the Earth is opposed to antisemitism and racism of any kind. The bill has been opposed by a number of Jewish organisations, including the Union of Jewish Students, Yachad and human rights charity René Cassin, and has been supported by others. 

Fourteen Israeli civil society and human rights organisations wrote to Rishi Sunak and ministers stating their opposition to the bill. Many of these organisations don’t support the campaign of BDS against Israel but do oppose legislation to ban it, citing concerns regarding restrictions on protest, the threat to internationally recognised rights and freedoms, and the ability of public bodies to make their own investment decisions on human rights. A number of groups have also raised concerns that the bill will undermine community cohesion rather than advance it.

For a greener, fairer future

To conclude, the Anti-Boycott Bill poses a serious threat, not only to BDS campaigning tactics, but also to the power and autonomy of our public bodies. We must have the means to oppose environmental harm, human rights abuses and the breaking of international law if we’re to ensure a greener, fairer future.